John McQuaid: Tasty

Tasty cover

TASTY: THE ART AND SCIENCE OF WHAT WE EAT
John McQuaid
Scribner, January 2015. $26.00
ISBN: 978-1-4516-8500-8

McQuaid reports:

I became interested in the science of taste by way of the sheer frustration of feeding my two children. Born two years apart, they were both picky eaters. Yet their pickiness only barely overlapped. From an early age, my son loved hot peppers and extreme tastes; he’d cut up a lime, and eat it for refreshment. My daughter hated spiciness, preferring bland, comfort foods, such as rice, mashed potatoes, chicken, and mac and cheese.

John McQuaid

John McQuaid (Photo by Hannah McQuaid)

And so I wondered, why did these differences exist? Where did they come from? Since the children share both genes and an environment, stock explanations would not suffice. When I began looking into these questions, a whole world opened up. After some preliminary research, I put together a detailed book proposal, which my agent sold to Scribner.

Initially, the idea was to cover the topic taste-by-taste — sweet, sour, bitter, et al. — along with other senses involved in flavor, such as smell and touch. Pretty early on, I switched to a narrative approach. The book is a brief biography of flavor: It begins in the primordial ooze of the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago, when life first began devouring other life, then covers the emergence of humanity, the taming of fire and of fermentation, and the arrival of civilization and history. It concludes by looking at the modern food system and where — since they never stopped evolving — our tastes are headed.

This structure allowed me to tell the story of the human flavor sense, which differs from that of other mammals in crucial ways, while exploring evolution, genetics, molecular biology, neuroscience, and psychology.

I read hundreds of scientific papers to get a sense of the state of the research, and interviewed dozens of scientists. I also did fun stuff: I took my daughter to visit to a cheese maker, and my son to visit the guy growing the hottest chili peppers in the world. The biggest challenge was fitting all these diverse elements together in an engaging way while not dumbing down the content, or oversimplifying the science.

Contact info:

Buy this book now in the ScienceWriters bookstore.

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NASW members: Will your book be published soon? Take advantage of this opportunity for shameless self-promotion.

Tell your fellow NASW members how you came up with the idea for your book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. Include what you wish you had known before you started this project, or had done differently.

See https://www.nasw.org/advance-copy-submission-guidelines.

Send info and images to Lynne Lamberg, NASW book editor, llamberg@nasw.org.

Mar. 18, 2015

Advance Copy

For this column, NASW book editor Lynne Lamberg asks NASW authors to tell how they came up with the idea for their book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. She also asks what they wish they had known before they began working on their book, what they might do differently the next time, and what tips they can offer aspiring authors. She then edits the A part of that Q&A to produce the author reports you see here.

Publication of NASW members' reports in Advance Copy does not constitute NASW's endorsement of their books. NASW welcomes your comments and hopes this column stimulates productive discussions.

Leon Levy Center for Biography fellows

Drexel University Online